Inspired by her beloved son who was murdered
PAUL Louis Summers was shot to death in the spring of 1999.
"He was simply in the wrong spot, wrong moment, wrong time," Robyn Shelley said of her 31-year-old son's death.
Paul died when three stray bullets slammed into his body while he was sleeping on a couch at a biker clubhouse in Gosford.
Despite a reward of $100,000 to help solve Paul's murder, no one has been brought to justice but Ms Shelley holds on to the hope that she will one day know who killed him and why.
In the years following Paul's murder, Ms Shelley coped the best she could, eventually finding solace through a group called The Compassionate Friends.
"I met some wonderful people who I wouldn't have otherwise known," she said of the organisation.
"These people have lost kids to drug overdoses, suicide, terminal illness - fantastic friendships have formed out of the pure hell of losing a son or a daughter."
Over the years, the global support organisation has amassed a dedicated army of selfless volunteers who have lost children, siblings or grandchildren.
While entry to the Friends comes at a sad and tragic price, it's this shared lived experience that ensures the organisation really connects with people during the most trying of times.
Like many bereaved parents before her, Ms Shelley reached a point where she wanted to turn her experience and loss into something positive and so she became a Friend.
"I decided if others could provide support, so could I," the 66-year-old Grafton resident said.
"You let the person lead the way - they want to tell you their story.
"Then they'll ask about how I got involved and I will tell them a little bit about my story.
"We never tell them to move on and get over it.
"One thing that was said to me (after Paul's murder) was 'You have three other children'. I just walked away when I heard this because one child cannot replace another child. You can't measure it like that."
Losing Paul and helping others come to terms with the death of their loved ones has given Ms Shelley a particularly poignant perspective on death.
"I've grown as a result of all this," she said.
"Death can either make or break you and your family - I decided in the early days that I would have to either sink or swim.
"I've learnt to live in the moment and not beyond that - that's what I do now."
'Hardest death for human beings to recover from'
YOU'RE disorientated, dizzy and can't concentrate. You feel like throwing up. Your body aches for no reason. The world around you is foggy and you struggle to make sense of even the simplest things.
This is how your body responds to the loss of a child.
Thankfully, few people in the Clarence Valley will experience what childhood grief and loss expert Dr Greg Roberts describes as the "hardest death for human beings to recover from".
It's not possible to say how many people under 18 have died in the Clarence Valley over the past few years.
But ARM Newsdesk research does show that 11 of the 2523 infants born in our region between 2010 and 2014 did not live beyond one year old.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare data reveals vehicle accidents, perinatal or congenital health problems, cancer and drownings are the leading killers of children aged one to 14.
Suicide, vehicle accidents, poisoning and assault are the most common causes of death for young people aged 15 to 24.
Dr Greg Roberts is one of Australia's leading authorities on child mortality.
He has worked with bereaved parents for 15 years and he is now the clinical operations manager with Red Nose Grief and Loss (formerly SIDS and Kids).
Dr Roberts said our childhood mortality rate was falling thanks to a range of factors including strong education about sudden infant death syndrome prevention, excellent vaccination programs and breakthroughs in life-prolonging medicines for once-fatal diseases such as cystic fibrosis.
However, he said the sad fact was some Clarence Valley mums and dads would have to live through the trauma of losing a son or daughter and the physical and emotional impacts of that loss could still be intense many years later.
"Having a child die is above the death of a spouse as far as the level of stress and impact on a person," Dr Roberts said.
"Immediately afterwards bereaved parents will find it really hard to concentrate and to focus on things.
"They will be in shock.
"Grief itself is a normal process but if a person isn't supported it can lead to mental health problems because of the intensity.
"In society we have this expectation that grief is this step-by-step process that gets better as time passes.
"That's somewhat true but it takes a lot longer after the death of the child."
Dr Roberts said supporting families through the loss of child was about respecting space and offering practical help such as cooking meals or doing household chores.
"It's not about cocooning the parents, but it's about checking in on them, making sure they're okay and whether there are things that they need.
"But at the same time it's important not to take over."
Helping sick children understand death
LEE-ANN Pedersen has been helping children come to terms with their own mortality for more than 10 years.
The 45-year-old nurse practitioner at Brisbane's Lady Cilento Children's Hospital works with Australia's sickest kids - little ones who have life-shortening chronic illnesses.
A focus on "family and honesty" underpins Ms Pedersen's approach to discussing death with her young patients.
"My job is to work with how the family operates," she said.
"I respect the family's wishes and how their philosophies work but if the child asks me a direct question, I'm not going to lie to them."
Ms Pedersen said her job was hard but it was also a privilege.
"We're in a very privileged position in that we get to meet families at a very vulnerable time and we are just one small part of the puzzle," she said.
"We can make a difference but sadly we can't change what's going to happen.
"We try to make it better for the family and the little person in the middle.
"That is what keeps you coming to work every day."
Lady Cilento Children's Hospital treats children from across northern New South Wales and Queensland.
- ARM NEWSDESK